This is the Army and the Story of the Box

On the occasion of last month’s celebration of Veterans’ Day, I posted on Facebook a couple of pictures of my Dad in World War II, performing in Irving Berlin’s all soldier show, This is the Army. I’m going to use this blog today to expand a bit on that post, and to also tell you a story that was a staple of my childhood, that today has a different ending than it did when I was a kid. Let’s start at the beginning…

My Dad, Frank Vincent D’Elia (so no…I’m not legitimately a third as I don’t have a middle name), was born on October 5th, 1910, on the lower east side of Manhattan. He was one of 13 kids in a typical big Italian family, and like many kids of his generation, never went to High School because he had to go out into the world and earn money to help support his family. My father was different from many folks in those days though, in that his chosen profession was to be an opera singer. (One of the questions I wished I’d asked my Dad when he was still with us was, “Why an Opera Singer?”) Jobs were hard enough to find, but finding a job as an opera singer was even harder.

From stories I heard growing up, like many performers, my Dad had many jobs that did not involve singing. From selling pretzels in the park to being a messenger for a Wall Street firm, to acting as “secretary” to his voice teacher, Madame Novelli, he did what he had to do! Long story short, that’s why he was very happy when he got to audition for, and then was offered a job in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, the Germans and the Japanese were edging the world towards war and this would impact my father’s life in a very large way.

Sometime in that first year of being a member of the Met chorus, he got his draft notice! After years of struggling and scraping by while supporting his family, he was finally at the point where he had a regular job, and now the US Army was going to change all that. He went to his draft board, looking to get an extension so that he could at least complete the season before reporting for duty. Ultimately, they did give him that extension, so he finished out his first season at the Met, and then went off to the army. (If you read the blog post, My Dad and His Family then you know the whole Draft Board story, if not, here’s a link https://rnewadventures.com/2020/10/06/my-dad-and-his-family/)

After kicking around at Fort Dix for a couple of weeks, my Dad was sure that he’d be sent off to some area where his background and experience would have no use to him. That’s why he was very surprised to be assigned to Camp Upton, in Yaphank on Long Island, to audition for Irving Berlin and his all soldier show, “This is the Army.” He passed the audition and joined the cast that included Broadway actors, movie stars, musicians from famous orchestras, and one singer from the Metropolitan Opera! For most of my childhood we’d be watching a movie or TV show, and my Dad would point out one of his “army buddies” that he’d traveled the world with in the show.

After rehearsals, the show opened at New York’s Broadway Theater (the same theater that gave us Mikey Mouse’s debut in Steamboat Willie) on July 4th of 1942, and was expected to run for 4 weeks. It was such a success that the run was extended several times, and eventually it ran to the end of September of that year. Since the show was loved by so many, including Eleanor Roosevelt, who saw it 3 times and wanted her husband the President to see it too, next up for the company was a National Tour, with all ticket sales going to Army Relief. Washington was their first stop with a special Presidential Matinee scheduled at Washington’s National Theater. The day after that performance, the entire company of This is the Army was invited to the White House to meet President Roosevelt, where festivities lasted late into the night! Another story I’d heard when I was a kid! When the National Tour ended in February 1943,This is the Army had earned $2,000,000 for the Army Relief Fund.

The next stop for the TITA company was Hollywood. Warner Brothers had offered $250,000 for the film rights of the show, and like the profits from the National Tour, this was donated to the Army, and the entire company spent 6 months in Hollywood making the Warner Brothers movie, “This is the Army.” Although, for the purpose of the movie, a sub plot was added that enabled Warner Brothers to include movie stars like Ronald Reagan (the only one of the “stars” who was in the service as an Army Lieutenant), George Murphy, Alan Hale, Sr., and several others. The musical numbers from the show were still intact and the performers in those numbers were still the soldiers. A camp for the 359 members of the company was set up near the Warner Brothers lot (with heated tents built by the Warner Brothers Prop Department), and each day, the company would march from their camp to the movie studio. As well as shooting the movie, the singers, dancers, and musicians all participated in regular army drills, as befitting soldiers in the US Army.

My Dad is the soldier on the far right

The real reason for the making of the movie was to raise funds for Army Relief, and towards that end, it was an unqualified success. It earned $9,555,586.44, which Warner Brother’s donated to the Army Relief Fund.

After their American performances, the company was reduced to a cast of 150 men, including my Dad. Their next assignment was to be shipped off to England, and play around the country for 3 months, but prior to that, they returned to Camp Upton on Long Island to re-stage the show taking into account the reduced cast. On October 21st, the company sailed for Liverpool aboard the Monarch of Bermuda. After 10 days of very crowded conditions, sailing in the dangerous North Atlantic, their convoy reached its destination. This is the Army played in London for Royalty and for American and Allied troops, and then embarked on a tour around Great Britain. On February 6, 1944, they returned to London and performed for General Eisenhower. At this point the cast thought they had reached the end of the road, and the show would be disbanded, and they’d all be sent off to regular Army units. However, after seeing the show, General Eisenhower thought that it would be a great moral tool for his troops, and requested from Washington that the show play to Troops at the front.

General Eisenhower’s request was granted, and a week later the This is the Army Company sailed for Algiers. This was to be the the first stop on their tour that would take the company around the world, and not end till October of 1945 in Hawaii, almost 2 months after the September Japanese surrender! Rather than performing for Army Relief Drives or heads of states, now they would chase the front, and perform for the soldiers actually fighting the war! Some of the places they performed were regal, and some just a thrown together stage in the jungle, and their audiences were now groups of soldiers who had just come out of combat and who would be heading right back into it after the show.

TITA Posters, The Original Cast Album, and pictures of Irving Berlin

After 2 weeks performing in North Africa, they sailed for Naples, Italy. In Naples they were billeted in the partially destroyed palace of Victor Emmanuel, and that’s where the story of The Box starts. This was not my father’s first visit to Naples. Back in the 30s, he had sailed from New York to Naples with his voice teacher Madame Novelli. Madame Novelli was originally from Naples, and they stayed with her family for several months while visiting . Among the members of the family was a young man about my Dad’s age, and the two of them became fast friends. Turn the clock ahead to 1944 and the American liberation of Naples. As soon as the “This is the Army” company got to Naples, my Dad looked for his old friends and found them living at the same address he’d visited as a young man. The war years had not been kind to his Italian friends, and my father did all he could to get them food and other supplies that they’d been without for years. One of the benefits of this was that my Dad got to eat with the family, and had home cooked Italian meals for the first time in several years. From my Dad’s stories, simple ingredients like SPAM in the right Italian hands could be turned into gourmet food, so this Italian kid from New York truly enjoyed his meals with his Italian friends!

The royal palace in Naples had been German headquarters in the city, and as such was a favorite target of the allied bombings. My Father would tell stories of sleeping in incredibly opulent surroundings with bomb blasted holes in the roof. The doors at the palace were about 10 feet tall and decorated with intricately carved and painted 4 inch by 10 inch panels. In a typical GI move, my Father pried one of these panels off the door as a souvenir. He told his friend about this and even took it with him to dinner one night to show the family. His friend said that he knew a wood carver and how would my father like it if he could get him to carve a box to match the panel, and use the panel as the lid? My Father liked that idea, and a plan was hatched. About a week later at dinner, his friend showed him the box. The wood carver had done an excellent job of matching the lid, and the carving was exquisite. All that was left was to paint the box to match the lid, and my father’s souvenir would be completed. He left them that night and promised to be back for dinner in 2 nights, and in turn, he was promised that the box would be ready for him to take. As they say, best laid plans.

On the afternoon of the second day, the “This is the Army” company was ordered to load their trucks and be ready to leave Naples within 45 minutes. The Allied forces were continuing up the Italian boot and their show was needed closer to the front lines to entertain the troops. There was no time to get to his friend’s house and no way to tell them what was happening, so that was the last of his stay in Naples, and of the carved box.

That happened in 1944 and was but a brief episode in all the escapades of the This is the Army troop, as they continued through Europe and eventually island hopped in the Pacific theater too.

So now turn the clock forward to the summer of 1971. I’ve just graduated from college and we’ve planned a 4 week trip through Europe. It starts at the Ford plant in Cologne, Germany where we picked up a new Ford Capri. We traveled through Germany, Switzerland and down one side of the Italian boot and up the other side. I very distinctly remember the day we got to Naples. After getting situated in the hotel room, my Dad went down to the lobby and found a phone book. He looked up the last name of his friend’s family and found a listing at the exact same address they’d lived at when he first met them in the 1930s. My Father placed a call and when a young lady answered, he explained who he was and asked for his friend by name. She said that he was looking for her Grandfather and that she’d get him. In a few minutes his friend, who he hadn’t seen or talked to in over 25 years, came to the phone. He couldn’t believe that this voice from his past was on the phone and was in Naples. One of the first thing he said to my Dad that day was, “Frank…I’ve got your box!”

That happened 50 years ago this past July, and was the culmination of a story I’d heard my Father tell all my life. Now his story of “The Box,” the souvenir that got away, had a new, and almost impossible to believe ending! My Dad died in 1983, but I must admit that I have continued to tell the story, and I guess keep him and his “This is the Army” stories alive. My Father was a great story teller, and after growing up on so many of these stories, and then finally seeing the movie, I’ve always felt very connected to this time in my Father’s life.

Oh…and the box? Well, for many years it resided on my Mother’s coffee table in her living room in Bayside, as it had since we returned from Europe in 1971, and it completed its trip started in 1944! When my Mom died in 2011, the box moved to our dining room hutch in our Mineola home. When Susie and I moved to Ocean City permanently, and cleaned out the Mineola house, our youngest son (Kenny…the performer and spiritual heir to my Mom and Dad’s profession) asked if he could have the box. It’s traveled around the country with him and his husband Chris, and now lives in their St. Petersburg, Florida living room.  I hope it will always have a place of honor in our family, as a reminder of one of our family’s member of the Greatest Generation.

This is the Army was my Dad’s life for over three and a half years, and was how he fought the Second World War. My Dad made friends and had experiences that he talked about for the rest of his life. As well as entertaining thousands during the war, and making millions of dollars for Army Relief, This is the Army was America’s first integrated company in uniform! Up until I finally saw the movie at the Museum of Modern Art in the 70s, all I had were those stories of my Dad’s of this period of his life. Believe me, I heard lots of “This is the Army” stories growing up, but none of them was any more prominent that the story of “The Box!” His stories of This is the Army continued to be told for the rest of his life, especially every 5 years when the alumni of the company would get together for a reunion. Reunions my Dad relished going to until his death. Sadly, most of the folks that my Dad spent these years with are gone, and the reunions just a memory for those of us who heard our Dads talk about This is the Army.

Thanks Dad for your service!

One of the great sources that I had for filling in some of the TITA details was Alan Anderson’s book, “The Songwriter Goes to War.”

Here’s an excerpt from that book detailing a story my father often told about TITA in Italy – Click on the book cover below to open the passage…

Another excellent source for this period in Irving Berlin’s life, is a series of articles from the National Archives and Prologue Magazine. If you’d like to read more about this period of American History, here’s a link to the first part of the series on This is the Army.
https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1996/summer/irving-berlin-1.html

If you’d like to see the whole scene that the picture at the beginning of this blog is taken from, here’s a link https://youtu.be/G5xKrNeqqGY

If you’d like to see the whole movie, through the magic of the Internet, here’s a link to Irving Berlin’s, This is the Army https://youtu.be/1RYHowaXdFY

My Dad and his Family

While the usual purpose of this blog is to write about adventures that Susie and I have in our life, occasionally I may deviate from that norm, because of a subject that interests me, and that I think deserves my attention. This is one of those subjects, and will contain some family info that is probably good for my kids to know.

My Dad and our oldest son Billy

My Dad, Frank D’Elia (no, my Mom and Dad were not too clever in the naming department), was born in New York City on October 5th, 1910. He died a couple of months after his 73rd birthday, back when our first born Billy was just a year old. That would make the year 1983, meaning that my Dad has been gone for almost 37 years. That’s the end of the story. Let me go back to the beginning of not only his story, but of the D’Elia Family in America.

According to records we’ve found in Ancestry.Com , my Dad’s Father, my Grandfather, Francesco Vincenzo D’Elia was born on January 16, 1872 in Tegiano, Italy, a little mountain town about 90 miles outside of Naples. As an aside, in 1971, when I graduated college, my Mom and Dad and I traveled for 5 weeks in Europe. We flew from New York to Cologne, Germany, where we picked up a little red Ford Capri, which we drove all over for the next 5 weeks before having it shipped home. We went down one side of the Italian boot, and up the other, and when we were in Naples, we journeyed one day to Tegiano. In the summer of 1971, Tegiano was still a sleepy little mountain town, and not one that was used to seeing tourists. When we drove into town in a bright red sports car, and my blonde Mom got out of the car, we could tell that there were lots of eyes on us from behind curtains. Thankfully, my Dad spoke fluent Italian, so we went to the church and he spoke to the priest and inquired about his family. While we may have felt isolated being D’Elias in America, turns out that almost everyone in Tegiano shared our last name, even the parish priest. My Dad gave the priest whatever information he had on his father, and it was enough for him to tell which of the D’Elias he was related to, and to tell my Dad that the last of his relatives had moved to South America..or so he said. It was interesting to step back in time, because with the exception of a couple of cars, I doubt Tegiano had changed much since my Grandfather was born, almost 100 years before.

 

So, back to our story. In 1890, at the age of 18, Francesco arrived all alone by ship from Naples, Italy at Ellis Island. As was the norm in those days, he surrounded himself with other folks from his homeland, and in 1891, at the age of 19, he married Rafaela, who also had been born in Italy, but who was only 15 years old at the time of their marriage. Their family started to grow when their son Joseph was born in 1893. On August 2, 1900, at the age of 24, after giving birth to 5 children. Rafaela died. They had been married for just 9 years.

I knew the story of my Grandfather having two families, and my Dad being part of the second one, but didn’t know as many details prior to Ancestry. I also hadn’t heard of all these children, so I assume that some of the babies died shortly after their birth, as all the children from the “first family” were born in the 1800s, and were thus considerably older that those in the second family. The first born, “Joe” (born in 1893), was dead before I was born, but always was revered as the family’s “Older Brother”. He owned a taxicab, and was one of the more mobile members of the D’Elia Family in those early days. The daughter Mary, who was born in 1895, was my Aunt Mamie, a wonderful lady who lived with her husband Frank in Lynbrook when I was a kid. They were fun people, but I don’t think either of them was even 5 feet tall! They got club soda delivered in squirt bottles and always let a little kid (me) play with it! The next daughter, Rose, was born in 1897, who was my Aunt Rose who lived up in the Bronx when I was a kid. So, there were three children who were under 7 years of age when Rafaela died in 1990. The two names that I didn’t know, and assumed died in childbirth or shortly after, were Anna in 1896 and Angelina in 1900. No details, but since Angelina was born in 1900 and Rafaela died in 1900, I’m going to assume the two events were connected.

Now, let’s go back to a bit of “Family Lore” before we delve into some more facts from Ancestry. I’d always heard from my Dad and his brothers and sisters, the story about how my Grandfather married the babysitter, and started family number 2. Turns out, it’s true. My Grandmother, Anna Marino, was born in New York City on December 24, 1886. Not quite a year after the death of his first wife, my Grandfather married Anna on July 11, 1901. The story I’d always heard is that one day my Grandfather went to my Grandmother’s Catholic School and told the Mother Superior that he was there to take Anna Marino out of school. When she asked him why, he said that he’d just married her, and she had to stay home and take care of his children. If you haven’t done the math yet, let me help you. On July 11, 1901 when they got married, Anna had not yet had her 15th birthday! He was 29 and she was 14 on their wedding day!! Obviously, a different time!

Together they had eight children in the following order. Margaret (my Aunt Margie) was born in 1907, followed by Cono (my uncle Coonie) in 1908, then my Dad in 1910, followed by my Aunt Jean in 1912, Raphaela (my Aunt Ray) in 1914, Antoinette (my Aunt Nettie) in 1917, my Uncle John in 1918, and the baby of the family, my Uncle Tom in 1923. My Dad always said that he was from a family of 13, but I could never understand that, because when I added the 3 from the first family, and the 8 from the second, I got 11. Adding in the two children that there are no records available beyond their birth, we get to the number 13.

My Father was born in Manhattan, in Little Italy on October 5, 1910. At the time of his birth, his Dad was 38 and his Mom was 23. I don’t have a lot of details of those early years beyond stories I heard from my Dad. I know that he was baptized at the Roman Catholic Church of the Transfiguration on Mott Street, which today is in the heart of New York’s Chinatown, and that serves a mainly Chinese community. It has been a Catholic Church since the middle of the 19th century, calling itself the “Church of Immigrants”, and over the years has served Irish, Italian, and now Chinese populations in the area.

Over the years, I heard lots of stories from my Dad, about his growing up years. I know that my Grandfather was a Junk Man, and my Dad said he rode around with a horse and wagon picking things up. Not sure how secure an occupation that was back then, but can’t imagine the family was doing very well financially at all. I remember stories my Dad told me about his Mom having to go down to the green grocer, and buy day old produce, and soak it in cold water to bring some life back into it. I remember him telling me that he painted a huge room in the house one day with just one can of paint, that he kept extending, so the color of the room changed as he painted. The D’Elia Family’s story sounds like one typical of the Depression Era, but it apparently never stopped them from having children, as 5 more kids came into the world after my Dad!

By the 1920 Census, the D’Elias were living in Brooklyn and there were now 7 children in the family. Money continued to be tight, and after completing 8th grade, my Dad left school, and worked to help support the family. I heard stories about him selling pretzels in the park, and I know that he worked for a number of years as a clerk/messenger down in the Wall Street area. In later years, he was a wonderful tour guide for that area that he’d walk daily doing that job. This was, however, not to be his life’s work.

My Dad – Age 18

I have no idea how, and now I’m very sorry I never asked him why, but my father from a young age decided that he wanted to be an Opera Singer, not a normal expectation from someone from his neighborhood or standing in life! He started singing lessons very early with a woman who believed he had the talent to indeed be an opera singer, and she took him under her wing. Her name was Madame Novelli, and although I never met her, I heard stories about her from an early age. She really thought my Dad had something to be nurtured, and she practically adopted him, played a huge part in his life and in him becoming who he grew up to be. I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic when I say that she saved his life! I’d heard not only my Dad, but the rest of his family talk about “Madame” in reveered terms.

In 1936, my Dad’s father died at the age of 64, and was buried in the huge Catholic Calvary Cemetery (365 acres) in the Woodside section of Queens. There are two stories I remember hearing from my Dad concerning this period of the D’Elia Family’s life. Both made a lasting impression on me. The first had to do with what my Dad did after he lost his father. He was 26 years old at the time, and I’m going to assume very Italian! I say this because the story is that every day for weeks, he’d travel by bus from the family’s home in Brooklyn to visit his father’s grave. Rain or shine, nice weather or bitter winter snows, if he could get there, he went. The results? He caught pneumonia, and was very sick. I don’t know if he told me that story to point out how the older Frank thought his younger self to be foolish to have done what he did, but that’s the message I was left with, and why we’ve only been a brief handful of times to my father’s grave. In my mind, my Dad lives in my heart and my thoughts, and not in a box in a piece of ground. I can visit him any time I want…and I do!

The second story had to do with how distraught my Grandmother was at the death of her husband, and how the family needed to move out of their Brooklyn apartment and the neighborhood where everything reminded her of her late husband. In what was probably a huge move, they crossed the Brooklyn/Queens line, and rented a house just off Metropolitan Ave in Forest Hills. This was a much needed development in the family’s life, and a way to try and get out from under the grief of their father’s passing, but couldn’t have been easy, as the D’Elia Family was still in the throws of the Depression. I’m not sure what, if anything, anybody else in the family was doing, but know my Dad had some WPA work, singing on radio shows and the like, in addition to doing a little work with Madame Novelli as her “secretary”. Just as everything was settling down, another huge problem was thrown in their path. They had spent everything they could scrape together to make this move and to afford the rent on the Forest Hills house, and after a month, the landlord said they had to move out because he wanted to sell the house!

Faced with this new dilemma, my Dad took the bull by the horns, and arranged to buy the house for his family! Madame Novelli came to his aid, over representing the “work” he did for her, and making it into a full time job. It was enough to get a bank to approve a loan, and now the D’Elia Family was safe in their new home…if my Dad was able to come up with the monthly mortgage payments! In reality, my Dad, almost single handedly, dragged his Mom, several sisters, and several brothers through the tail end of the depression. It was why I have always thought of my Dad as the White Sheep of the family. But life goes on!

Late in the 1930s, my Dad auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, and was hired as a member for the 1940/41 season at the huge sum of $75 a week. The season was short in those days, running only from late fall to early spring, but $75 a week must have felt like a fortune to him. What with the recent family home purchase in Forest Hills, NY, I’m sure that this job and it’s paycheck took a lot of pressure off him. However, the outside world entered his life in the form of a draft notice. He went down to his local draft board to try and get an extension through the end of the Met’s season, and was told by the gentleman he spoke to, “It’s you kind of jerks that wouldn’t sign up if Hitler was marching down Fifth Avenue!” I have no way of knowing if this really happened, but the way my Dad told the story, his reply was, “If Hitler is marching down Fifth Avenue, I doubt if a short fat Italian Opera singer is going to make much difference!” True or not, he got his extension, and was able to finish his first season at the Met!

My Dad backstage (the short one) preparing for a performance of This Is The Army

Knowing the way the government worked, my Dad expected he’d have a gun in his hands and be shooting at Germans in short order. I can just imagine his surprise when he was ordered to Camp Upton on Long Island and detailed to Irving Berlin’s All Soldier Show, “This is the Army.” He spent the war performing on Broadway for six months, spending six months in Hollywood making the movie of the show, and then the rest of the war traveling the world, performing for soldiers up and down the Italian peninsula, all over Africa and the Middle East, and island hoping through the Pacific. Sometimes they were in big theaters, sometimes they were close to enemy lines, performing on makeshift stages. Their mission was morale, and at the end of the war, the entire company received awards for having done much for the morale of the soldiers, sailors, and marines they’d performed for.

He was mustered out of the US Army, just in time to start rehearsals for the Met’s new season, and after 4+ years in the service, had no clothes that fit, and came to work that first day in his uniform. And that was the day he met my Mom, but then that’s a story for yet another day!